Helmsmen are members of the crew on the highest rank of the operational level on an inland vessel. They perform a variety of duties concerned with the operation and upkeep of deck department areas, the engine and other equipment, mooring and unmooring, as well as the steering of the ship as the main task.

Other titles

The following job titles also refer to helmsman:

submarine helmsman

Minimum qualifications

Associate’s degree is generally required to work as helmsman. However, this requirement may differ in some countries.

ISCO skill level

ISCO skill level is defined as a function of the complexity and range of tasks and duties to be performed in an occupation. It is measured on a scale from 1 to 4, with 1 the lowest level and 4 the highest, by considering:

  • the nature of the work performed in an occupation in relation to the characteristic tasks and duties
  • the level of formal education required for competent performance of the tasks and duties involved and
  • the amount of informal on-the-job training and/or previous experience in a related occupation required for competent performance of these tasks and duties.

Helmsman is a Skill level 3 occupation.

Helmsman career path

Similar occupations

These occupations, although different, require a lot of knowledge and skills similar to helmsman.

maritime pilot
marine cargo inspector
freight inspector
deck officer

Long term prospects

These occupations require some skills and knowledge of helmsman. They also require other skills and knowledge, but at a higher ISCO skill level, meaning these occupations are accessible from a position of helmsman with a significant experience and/or extensive training.

inland water transport general manager
airspace manager
aviation surveillance and code coordination manager
aviation communications and frequency coordination manager
maritime instructor

Essential knowledge and skills

Essential knowledge

This knowledge should be acquired through learning to fulfill the role of helmsman.

Physical parts of the vessel: Detailed knowledge of the different physical components of the vessel. Provide maintenance and care to ensure optimal operations.
International regulations for cargo handling: The body of conventions, guidelines and rules which dictate the activity of loading and unloading cargo in international ports.
International waterways: The international waterways used for maritime navigation, the geographical location of currents, maritime waterways, and harbours.
Functions of vessel deck equipment: Know and control deck and safety equipment and vessel lifting facilities.
Multimodal transport logistics: Understand logistics and multimodal transport as the planning and control of the movement of goods or people, and all related logistical supporting activities.
National regulations on handling cargo: The national regulations governing the loading and unloading of cargo in ports within that country.
Vessel stability principles: Thoroughly understand the principles of vessel stability; follow safety requirements during loading and unloading of cargo.
European classification of inland waterways: Understand the European CEMT classification of inland waterways; use modern information systems to compare the dimensions of the waterway to those of the vessel.
Inland waterway ship building: Understand inland waterway ship building and construction. Operate vessel in compliance with construction legislation.
Passenger transport regulations: Have knowledge of passenger transport conventions and regulations.
Principles of cargo stowage: Understand the principles of cargo stowage. Understand procedures by which containers should be efficiently loaded and unloaded, taking into account gravitational forces that are exerted during transportation.
Distinguish ship construction methods: Distinguish various methods of constructing vessels and how this affects their behaviour in the water in terms of strength and stability.
National waterways: Know the national waterways used for inland navigation, know geographical location of rivers, canals, seaports and inland harbours, and understand the relationship with cargo flows.
Anchors used in inland water transport: Name and recognise different types of anchors used in inland water transport (IWT); explain the characteristics of different anchors and their specific uses.

Essential skills and competences

These skills are necessary for the role of helmsman.

Use radar navigation: Operate modern radar navigation equipment to ensure safe vessel operations.
Use modern electronic navigational aids: Use modern navigational aids such as GPS and radar systems.
Assess trim of vessels: Assess the trim stability of vessels, referring to the stability of a vessel while it is in a static condition.
Help to control passenger behaviour during emergency situations: Know how to use life-saving equipment in emergency situations. Provide assistance if leakages, collisions or fires should occur, and support the evacuation of passengers. Know crisis and crowd management, and administer first aid on board.
Use meteorological information: Use and interpret meteorological information for operations dependent on climatic conditions. Use this information to provide advise on safe operations in relation to weather conditions.
Restrict passenger access to specific areas on board: Delimit access points for passengers on board and implement an effective protection system; prevent unauthorised access to restricted areas at all times.
Facilitate safe disembarkation of passengers: Assist passengers when they leave the vessel, aircraft, train, or other mode of transport. Keep the safety measures and procedures in mind.
Maintain ship stability in relation to weight of passengers: Maintain vessel stability in relation to weight of passengers; communicate with passengers.
Supervise movement of crew: Oversee embarkation and disembarkation of crew members; ensure that safety regulations are followed according to specifications.
Anchor ships to the port: Anchor ships to the port according to the type of vessel.
Execute safety assurance exercises: Organise and execute safety exercises; ensure safety in potentially dangerous situations.
Supervise movement of passengers: Oversee embarking and disembarking of travellers; ensure that safety regulations are followed according to specifications.
Supervise unloading of cargo: Supervise unloading processes for equipment, cargo, goods and other items. Ensure that everything is handled and stored correctly in accordance with regulations and standards.
Supervise loading of cargo: Supervise the process of loading equipment, cargo, goods and other items. Ensure that all cargo is handled and stored properly in accordance with regulations and standards.
Moor vessels: Follow standard procedures to moor vessels. Manage communication between the ship and the shore.
Ensure integrity of hull: Ensure sure that water does not break the hull; prevent progressive flooding.
Assess stability of vessels: Assess the two kinds of stability of vessels, namely transversal and longitudinal.
Use equipment for safe stowage: Use tools and equipment to perform safe stowage and ensure proper loading and securing of goods.
Communicate reports provided by passengers: Transmit information provided by passengers to superiors. Interpret passenger claims and follow up requests.
Clean parts of vessels: Clean engine rooms and vessel components using appropriate cleaning materials; ensure compliance with environmental regulations.
Apply regulations on cargo transport operations: Display knowledge of relevant local, national, European and international regulations, standards, and codes concerning the operation of freight transport.
Adjust weight of cargo to capacity of freight transport vehicles: Adapt weight of cargo to capacity of freight transport vehicles. Oversee the maximum load capacity of the vehicle in question and the weight of each individual crate in the shipment.
Control proceedings on board in the event of an emergency: Control proceedings in the event of a leakage, fire, man overboard, collisions, and evacuations; implement crisis management and stay calm in emergency situations.
Assist anchoring operations: Assist during anchoring operations; operate equipment and assist in anchor manoeuvres.
Manage vessel control systems: Know, operate, test and maintain control systems of vessels. Maintain and if necessary repair electronic components of vessel control systems.
Navigate european inland waterways: Navigate European waterways in accordance with navigation agreements.
Ensure safe loading of goods according to stowage plan: Monitor and ensure the safe and secure loading of materials and goods, as specified in the stowage plan.
Understand different types of locks and their operation: Master various engineering constructions and functions of bridges and locks in the field of navigation. Conduct locking and entering procedures.
Stow cargo: Stow cargo in a secure manner; operate handling gear and lashing equipment.
Distinguish various types of ships: Recognise and name various types of vessels common in European maritime transport; understand the different characteristics, construction details, and tonnage capacities of different vessels.
Adhere to traffic regulations on inland waterways: Understand and apply traffic rules in inland waterway navigation in order to ensure safety and avoid collisions.
Operate life-saving appliances: Operate survival craft and their launching appliances and arrangements. Operate life-saving instruments like radio life-saving appliances, satellite EPIRBs, SARTs, immersion suits and thermal protective aids.
Unmoor vessels: Follow standard procedures to unmoor vessels. Manage communication between the ship and the shore.
Assist passenger embarkation: Assist passengers when they embark vessels, aircraft, trains and other modes of transport. Keep safety measures and procedures in mind.
Swim: Move through water by means of the limbs.
Evaluate engine performance: Read and comprehend engineering manuals and publications; test engines in order to evaluate engine performance.
Follow procedures in the event of an alarm: Follow safety procedures in the event of an alarm; act according to company instructions and procedures.

Optional knowledge and skills

Optional knowledge

This knowledge is sometimes, but not always, required for the role of helmsman. However, mastering this knowledge allows you to have more opportunities for career development.

Vessel fuels: Know and understand characteristics of fuels and lubricants, and the fuel loading specifications of various types of vessels.
Electrical systems used in transportation: Understand the functioning of electrical systems, their specifications, and application in operations and systems for the transportation of freight and people.
Environmental aspects of inland waterway transportation: Consider ecological aspects of the operation of ships in order to use vessels in an efficient and environmentally friendly manner. Understand environmental aspects when navigating inland waterways.

Optional skills and competences

These skills and competences are sometimes, but not always, required for the role of helmsman. However, mastering these skills and competences allows you to have more opportunities for career development.

Apply conflict management: Take ownership of the handling of all complaints and disputes showing empathy and understanding to achieve resolution. To be fully aware of all Social Responsibility protocols and procedures, and to be able to deal with a problem gambling situation in a professional manner with maturity and empathy.
Provide first aid: Administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation or first aid in order to provide help to a sick or injured person until they receive more complete medical treatment.
Perform risk analysis: Identify and assess factors that may jeopardise the success of a project or threaten the organisation’s functioning. Implement procedures to avoid or minimise their impact.
Act reliably: Proceed in a way that one can be relied on or depended on.
Provide feedback on job performance: Provide feedback to employees on their professional and social behaviour in the work environment; discuss results of their work.
Use different communication channels: Make use of various types of communication channels such as verbal, handwritten, digital and telephonic communication with the purpose of constructing and sharing ideas or information.
Encourage teambuilding: Stimulate teambuilding activities; coach employees in order to help them reach their goals.
Show confidence: Demonstrate degrees of maturity by fully understanding one’s own qualities and abilities which can serve as sources of confidence in different situations.
Perform vessel maintenance and cleaning: Follow the First Mate’s instructions in assisting with equipment maintenance such as painting or varnishing, splicing lines, and wash-down chores.
Show intercultural awareness: Show sensibility towards cultural differences by taking actions which facilitate positive interaction between international organisations, between groups or individuals of different cultures, and to promote integration in a community.
Detect malfunctions in engines: Detect and effectively respond to machinery malfunctions. Take actions in order to prevent material damage; practice damage control.
Recognise abnormalities on board: Identify anomalies and abnormalities on board, evaluate them, and take appropriate actions to restore normal operation of ship. Check all (safety) systems for operational functions. Organise actions to be taken in the event of an identified problem.
Use maritime english: Communicate in English employing language used in actual situations on board ships, in ports and elsewhere in the shipping chain.
Have computer literacy: Utilise computers, IT equipment and modern day technology in an efficient way.
Comply with checklists: Follow checklists and ensure compliance with all the items included in them.
Work in a water transport team: Work confidently in a group in water transport services, in which each individual operates in their own area of responsibility to reach a common goal, such as a good customer interaction, maritime safety, and ship maintenance.
Implement environmental protection measures: Enforce environmental criteria to prevent environmental damage. Strive for the efficient use of resources in order to prevent waste and reduce costs. Motivate colleagues to take relevant steps to operate in an environmentally friendly manner.
Implement workplace drug policies: Implement strict policy of alcohol and drug prohibition in the workplace and take immediate action in the case of infringement.

ISCO group and title

3152 – Ships’ deck officers and pilots





  1. Helmsman – ESCO
Last updated on August 8, 2022

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